Senate Democrats Defy White House Plan to Cheat Tribal Heath Costs

Rob Capriccioso
10/1/13

 

In a rare policy schism, Senate Democrats have defied pressure from the Democratic White House to include a proposal in the federal budget that would authorize the Indian Health Service (IHS) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to limit how much each tribe would be paid for contract support costs (CSC).

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The policy, pushed by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) since this spring and supported by IHS Director Yvette Roubideaux, would wipe out tribal legal claims and put tribes in the difficult position of being required to spend money to administer contract support programs without providing them the funding to do so, according to tribal leaders. Forty-five tribes and tribal organizations sent a letter in early September to Congress, saying the proposal would “cheat” tribes out of millions of dollars they are due.

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Senate Democrats are now taking a stand against the Obama administration on the matter. In a letter sent September 30 to OMB Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Jon Tester (D-Montana), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said they were against including the policy in a final budget bill this year. At the request of tribes, they also requested a meeting with President Barack Obama with tribal leaders on the matter.

Republican Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joined in writing the letter.

“We support ongoing efforts to reduce the annual budget deficit, and understand the difficult of the broader policy decisions required to make necessary funding reductions,” the senators wrote. “Unfortunately we do not understand, nor do we support, the Administration’s proposal to cap Contract Support Costs (CSC) owed to federal recognized tribes.”

The senators further wrote that the president’s fiscal year 2014 budget request “unjustly demands” that Congress, through the annual appropriations process, sets caps on CSC reimbursements to tribes. They oppose that plan, noting that these payments are necessary for tribal governments contracting with the IHS and the BIA to provide critical services to tribal citizens nationwide. And the Supreme Court, they note, ruled last year that the U.S. government must pay all contracts with tribes that provide necessary medical and social services to tribal citizens.

“We view this maneuver to circumvent the Supreme Court’s rulings as short-sighted and ill-timed,” the senators added. “Even more troubling is the fact that the proposed caps will hinder the ability of tribes and tribal consortiums to file claims for contract underpayments. The ability to file court claims is a necessary tool to ensure the federal government meets its obligations to our Nation’s First People.”

Senate leadership initially included the policy in its continuing resolution to fund the government on a short-term basis, but tribal leaders pushed back in early September, and both the Senate and House did not include it in their most recent continuing resolutions before the ongoing government shutdown. Because the chambers could not agree on a continuing resolution, the government shut down October 1; the main source of contention was Obamacare.

Tribal leaders are closely observing this situation, as they look beyond the shutdown and the continuing resolution battle to when a final budget will be passed. No tribal leader wants to see a final budget that caps contract support costs, since tribes are owed approximately $200 million in this area already, and costs continue to mount every year that the federal government does not pay its bills.

House members have already been vocal in decrying the White House plan, and Republican leadership did not include the proposal in its continuing resolutions offered before the government shutdown.

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Tribal leaders say they have been urging both the OMB and IHS to change their positions favoring the caps, but the response has been lacking. In fact, OMB officials have asked tribal leaders to reconsider their opposition, said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.

“Often, what we get from those guys is, ‘Make a choice—what’s your priority,” Allen said on the CSC issue. “Wait, how can they tell us that? How can they ask us to prioritize when we are underfunded in almost every category due to promises that have not been kept to Indian country for centuries.”

Allen said he is hopeful the Senate Democrats remain strong against the White House. He said tribal leaders should contact Cantwell, chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, to insist she keeps the pressure up.

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